Finally, in the final week of its run, I got to see Theatre for a New Audience’s “Julius Caesar,” directed by Shana Cooper, who has reprised a production that debuted at Ashland in 2017. I’ve had to shift dates two or three times because of mid-winter mania — I think the first ticket I held for the show was in late February — and I was worried that I’d not make it in the end. Nothing like a not-too-crowded theater on a Tuesday night!
In the wake of the big Trump/Caesar production in the Park in 2017, which stirred up the Breitbart hornets so much that Delta Airlines — to which mega-corp I’m bound by chains of flyer miles — pulled its support from the Public Theater, this production was impressively stripped down. The crowd scenes, from Lupercal to the assassination at the Forum to the battle at Philippi, were the highlights, as Cooper directed a powerfully ritualized riot-as-dance that was part faux-Haka and part heavy metal mosh-pit. Having the closing battle between Roman legions physically echo the rioting plebs in the opening scene was a compelling choice. Are soldiers organized rioters? Do men in groups tend toward communal violence? Among the dancers and the smaller parts, Stephen Michael Spencer’s Caska stood out as perhaps the most memorable figure in the cast. At the play’s close, he stood at the phalanx’s apex, grunting and chanting a war-dance that distinctly upstaged the final spoken lines of Benjamin Bonefant’s Octavius Caesar. A case of the physical warrior crowding out the oily politician? And also a production that loves movement more than words?
The sweep of the crowd scenes formed a backbone around which the individual performances entwined themselves. The big players were an odd mix. Brandon Dirden’s Brutus was thoughtful and melancholy in his crucial soliloquies, especially “It must be by his death…” (2.1), in which he opened a chilling window into the so-reasonable heart of a killer. He re-activated that intimacy with the audience in his first scene with Caesar’s ghost (4.3), but when facing other characters in scenes of animated conflict — the spat with Cassius in 4.3, the pre-conspiracy conversations in act 1, and especially when confronted by Merritt Janson as his wife Portia in 2.1 — Brutus diminished. It was odd, in a production so dominated by a trio of crowd scenes, to have the lead actor flourish only in his solitary moments.
Politics happens both among crowds and in smaller encounters, and the places that this production limped were mostly interpersonal. Brutus could not match either Portia or Matthew Amendt’s sinewy Cassius. Rocco Sisto played a wonderfully expansive, stage-commanding Caesar, and Tiffany Rachelle Stewart showed a humanizing devotion to him as his wife Calpurnia. I’ve never before seen Calpurnia appear onstage during Mark Antony’s funeral oration (3.2). In literally waving Caesar’s bloody shirt, Calpurnia provided emotional ballast for Jordan Barbour’s Mark Antony to bound about the stage.
During the furor about this play in 2017, I remember thinking that every production of Caesar must necessarily be about murdering the President, and of course it didn’t take long to find the analogous Obama/Caesar production from 2012, directed by the always-awesome Rob Melrose. Unlike those two ripped from the newsfeed productions, Cooper’s staging seemed deliberately opaque rather than topical. The relative weakness of Brutus in the public scenes also tamped down the central ethical dilemma. Might it be necessary to murder your “best lover” for “the good of Rome” (3.2)? I enjoyed this production, especially for its crowd scenes including the boot-stomping murder of Cinna the Poet, but I’m not sure it quite faced up to the horror and violence of that question.